22 May 2020 No Comments by The Northern Standard


Covid-19 may have supplanted Brexit as the predominant news preoccupation of the times but it appears that the ramifications of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union are about to re-emerge as a topic of major interest and contention. Brexit has been bubbling under the surface of media attention and scrutiny in recent weeks as troubling dispatches from the UK’s trade deal discussions with the EU began to emerge and key areas of concern such as harmonisation of standards and competition appeared mired in deadlock.

As we went to press yesterday, Brexit was beginning to rear its ugly head above the surface once more with the announcement of the UK Government’s proposals to deal with the Northern Ireland Protocol element of the Withdrawal Agreement. The clock is ticking on the trade discussions, the outcome of which is being watched with closeness in this country and with particular interest in our own Border region.

Although the UK remains bound by EU rules until December 31, the resumptions of the trade talks process set for June is only weeks away from the time when what would seem an inevitable extension of the discussion process must be sought – something that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson with customary brinkmanship is still setting his face firmly against asking for.

Buoyed by last December’s convincing general election victory founded in substantial part on the exit deal he was able to strike with Brussels, Mr Johnson and his subordinates have been bullish in their talks stance, playing to their home audience with promises of a lucrative trading future unfettered by EU entanglements that have tested the patience of Michel Barnier and his negotiating cohorts and appear to leave little room for the sort of nuance, compromise and diplomacy that parleys of this complexity usually demand in order to be concluded in a manner that both sides can live with and sell to those who selected them for this thankless mission.

Yesterday the UK Government said that its implementation of the protocol would mean processes on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would be kept to an absolute minimum following the end of the Brexit transition period. There would be no new Customs infrastructure in the North, no international border in the Irish Sea – but there will be checks on animals and food goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK from next January.

Under the protocol implementation proposals, tariffs will only be levied on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK if they are at risk of crossing the land border into the Irish Republic and therefore into EU Single Market and Customs Union terrain. It was clear as the flesh Mr Johnson’s Government was placing on the protocol bones began to take solid shape yesterday that the EU were hardly likely to be immediately dissuaded from their concerns that insufficient preparation had been devoted by the UK to this vital element of the Withdrawal Agreement.

While the protection of the Good Friday Agreement is woven like a mantra through the document’s text, the devil of the detail is like to take a considerable amount of time to tease out – and businesses in our own circulation area and across the Border corridor in this jurisdiction will be keen to ascertain the practical detail of how the inevitable checks and controls might impede and disrupt this vital artery of trade, particularly for those in the agri-food sector.

The technical complexity and political sensitivity which the European Commission have said makes the Northern Ireland Protocol the most challenging element of the Withdrawal Agreement will require much more detailed reflection in the detail of the UK Government’s proposals than was initially apparent yesterday when Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove MP began to brief Parliament on the matter. We for a long time feared a No Deal Brexit.

While that fear has not gone away, perhaps it should at this moment in time be more properly supplanted by a dread of a Blindside Brexit: the arrival by the UK at the end of its current negotiations with the EU that suits the narrow and self-serving agenda of Mr Johnson and his select constituency but which relegates the interests of the people of Northern Ireland to a poor second; an outcome which our national politicians might have been able to meaningfully mitigate were they not preoccupied with the complexities of the Covid-19 recovery roadmap and the tortuous process of forming a new Government.

We have heard interesting talk of our current Taoiseach taking on a new Brexit-specific role if the discussions between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Greens to enter coalition bear fruit. This is an admirable proposal, and there appears no better man for the job than Mr Varadkar – but by the time he gets around to picking up the phone to Mr Johnson again in his new capacity, it might very well be too late to exercise any meaningful influence on the direction of the pathway that the UK’s valedictory journey out of Europe is taking.

Now is surely the hour for some astute behind the scenes diplomacy and a renewal by the Government of its friendly public persuasion of Mr Johnson, the emphatic line-in-the-sand drawing which we have not heard for a while from Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney being softened and nuanced once more by the conciliatory voice of Mr Varadkar.

Our recent national quietude on Brexit, if it was enforced to allow minds concentrate on the formidable Covid-19 challenge, has surely now just about served its purpose. The UK needs to be reminded that it has obligations to the Good Friday Agreement and the people of Northern Ireland that run much deeper than mere lip service, and which are likely to have profoundly divisive consequences on this island if they are not honoured. A Blindside Brexit simply cannot be countenanced.

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